Researchers are assets, not burdens

JAMES Bowen (THES, Letters, April 24) displays the sort of views that many of us had hoped had expired with the demise of the previous government.

He mistakenly treats individual research grants as separate entities, whereas a much better picture is gained if one examines universities' research income as a whole. University research is a multi-million-pound business. For example, the University of Edinburgh brought in Pounds 345 million in research funds in the year up to January 31, 1998. When such figures are examined, it becomes apparent that universities can afford to treat researchers as permanent assets rather than as temporary burdens.

Of course, when any employment contract commences there cannot be a cast-iron guarantee that funding for the post will last forever. However, many universities are using alleged insecurity of funding as an excuse for issuing fixed-term contracts. Thus the number of academics on contracts has now risen to over 50 per cent, way beyond that which can be attributed solely to insecurity of funding.

Moreover, Mr Bowen is out of touch with more enlightened university managements and funding bodies. They are trying to help researchers (and others on fixed-term contracts) by examining best practice in the private sector in order to determine how to manage continuity of employment in a context of ad hoc funding. Among the most enlightened university managements are those abandoning the use of waiver clauses in employment contracts.

The Association of University Teachers' approach is realistic. We advocate that fixed-term contracts are the exception. Mr Bowen is wrong to suggest that the AUT is "discriminating against would-be researchers". Rather it is those university managements who continue to use waiver clauses and disproportionate amounts of fixed-term contracts that discriminate against employees by ensuring that they have fewer rights than those on "permanent" and rolling contracts.

The AUT's position is not about whining, it is about treating people on contracts with respect and seeking to ensure for them the rights that many of their colleagues take for granted. Mr Bowen supports the continued denial of basic employment rights. AUT does not.

Martin Cloonan , Chair, AUT contract research staff committee

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